If there is one biblical book that expresses the hues and tints of human emotion, it is the Psalms, the hymn book of Jews and Christians. Composed over a period of some 700 years beginning with the reign of King David (1000-970 BC), the psalms reflect Israel’s deepening and continuous relationship with God.
The basic theme, total trust in and reliance on Providence, is imbedded in all the psalms. Metaphors too like ‘God is my rock, my fortress, my refuge and place of safety, my stronghold, my song, and my love’ run throughout the psalms. The individual and the nation cast their burden upon the Lord, again and again. And, again.
The Jews are a long-suffering people. How many times has their land been plundered, their identity questioned, their very existence challenged by extinction, well-documented in histories of the Holocaust and by its few survivors. From the time of Abraham, the Israelites were singled out as God’s most beloved spouse, and this human-divine bond could not be broken. God remained faithful to them, though they, less so. Still, they were free to vent their emotions when they surrounded by foreign and bellicose nations who sought to overthrow them, and did so. Where did they turn? In anguish and despair, they asked not only why God was permitting it all to happen, but they also pleaded for consolation, which, in turn, became songs of consolation. Of the entire corpus of psalms, about one-third are complaints and laments, both community and individual, exceeding hymns of praise and thanksgiving.
When Bad News Happens . . .
If we pause to reflect, good things do surround us. The proper response is “thank you, thank you!” Yet, the year 2013 has not exactly brought favorable news in the large picture. With reportage at our fingertips, we are bombarded with stressful news alerts. The onslaught of recent tornadoes is one example. Americans live in a state of heightened alert and terrorism. Have you noticed that we move from violence to violence, from scandal to scandal and from one sexual assault to another? Breakdown is a major theme of life – breakdown of health and relationships, of social manners and mores, religious practice. Distrust is on the rise. Rare are those uneventful days when life can be lived at an even keel. When good things happen, we should break out into song! Still, the question remains: how to process, how to assimilate daily upsets?
Go to the Psalms
There is no more soothing effect on the soul than pouring out our hearts in and with the psalms; they are honey for the soul. Jesus himself prayed the psalms, even on the cross. In the psalms, we speak directly to God, we face God in ourselves, in others, and in our daily travails. In Psalm 119 where light breaks through the darkness, the modern world is the focus of prayer.
The Psalms are the perfect refuge for emotions that flare up and press us to ‘let it all hang out.’ At times of distress, the psalms of lament offer consolation and wisdom, courage and patience. If a child can cry out to a mother or father of its pain, what of us in our relationship with God? In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked that his pain be taken away.
Of course, talk shows, counseling agencies, and other social outlets deliver temporary relief to those who would vent about anything and everything. But the psalms stoop to lift us out of the deep in ways that human help cannot.
The curious thing about lament and complaint: when we raise our drooping heads to praise and thank God, these very acts console the complaint and lament, especially when we realize that Jesus walks in solidarity with us.
The Book of the Psalms is one of remembering, remembering God’s saving deeds, not merely in Israel’s history and in the personal experience of the individual Jew, but also by extension in the Christian’s life-experience. The Psalmists are deeply involved in our life-situations, in my own situation, religious and otherwise. Like Israel, we labor under the great mystery of suffering and evil, as Psalm 72 poignantly reveals.
Psalms of Complaint and Lament
Scattered among the psalms are ‘cursing’ psalms, uttered against God’s enemies. In these, the Israelites appeal to God for help, win God’s sympathy by a describing the nature of the complaint – sickness, danger of death, sin, old age; they plead for God’s justice and fidelity, for those unjustly accused of false charges or unjustly treated. Some of these psalms are: 3, 5-7, 14, 54-59, 61, 63-64, 69-71, 86, 102, 109, 120, 140-143.
The collective psalms find their life-setting in a national calamity, such as defeat in battle. The structure is similar to that of an individual lament: cry for help, description of distress and request, and the motifs for Yahweh’s intervention. These are grouped in Pss 43, 57, 73, 78, 79, 82, 88, 105, 136.
Parallelism in the Psalms
The psalms have a predictable structure. The first verse sets forth what is on the mind of the psalmist. The second verse rephrases the sentiments but in different words. This is known as parallelism. Here we have creative repetition, the key to appreciating the psalms, for example:
Ps 3:8 Arise, LORD! Save me, my God!
You will shatter the jaws of all my foes; you will break the teeth of the wicked.
Ps 5:2 Hear my words, O LORD;
listen to my sighing.
Ps 17:1 I call upon you; answer me, O God;
turn your ear to me; hear my prayer.
Ps 6:7-8 I am wearied with sighing; all night long tears drench my bed; my couch is soaked with weeping.
My eyes are dimmed with sorrow, worn out because of all my foes.
Ps 55:22 Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you;
He will never permit the righteous to be moved.
Praying the Psalms in a Dispirited Age
The psalms are songs or hymns, all one hundred fifty of them. Personal and communal, they touch every aspect of life, past and present. They are prayers to God, not prayers about God. Like the bee who feeds on the nectar of flowers, so we approach the psalms to find honey for the soul. In Psalm, 23, we find this honey, permeated as it is with tenderness on the part of the shepherd who walks with and leads his flock.
Here we have one of the most beloved psalms of the entire body of psalmic literature. The psalms are an essential part of the Church’s worship, and all Catholics are exhorted to pray them frequently, if not daily in the Liturgy of the Hours. Through the psalms, individual Catholics, Catholic families, and the entire Body of Christ grow to put on Christ for all to see (Gal 3:17).